According to a new report from the Washington Post, China is inching forward with an expansion into the Middle East. Gerry Shih traveled to Tajikistan, a country in the heart of Asia that borders Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. There, Shih documented first-hand evidence that the Chinese troops have moved into the region.

Expansionist moves by China should hardly come as a surprise now after it has asserted ownership of the South China Sea with more military bases and even worked its way into Africa by funding massive infrastructure projects across the continent. The military base in Tajikistan is different, however, from China’s past endeavors. Namely, it is only the second base it has created on foreign soil, following the opening of its Djibouti support base. Until the Djibouti expansion, the Chinese were more apt to spread influence only financially, with the occasional navy patrol in the South China Sea.

It appears that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA ) is now part of the Chinese economic package that it offers to would-be partners. While Chinese leadership insisted that the Djibouti location would be for nonmilitary activities, further analysis revealed heavy fortifications.

Djibouti offered the perfect cover for China to expand its military reach inconspicuously: many nations from around the globe have military bases in the Horn of Africa to ensure the smooth flow of trade and commerce. In choosing this location as its first overseas base, the Chinese government encountered little resistance. In return for giving land and permission for the military outpost, Djibouti received $1 billion, which it used for infrastructure projects like the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway. Now that China has a foothold on the Indian Ocean, it can adapt and learn in preparation for opening more bases on the continent.

When Shih toured Tajikistan, he found it showered in Chinese money, much like Djibouti: power plants, hospitals, roads and railway lines, even schools. More than half of Tajikistan’s external debt is now owned by one Chinese state bank. He also found PLA soldiers, one who said he had been deployed there for a few years.

The Chinese government has remained mute about the matter, declining to comment about the troops stationed there. Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry, however, declared there are “no People’s Republic of China military bases on the territory of the Republic of Tajikistan,” and not even “any talks whatsoever” to build such an establishment. The evidence is irrefutable now that the Chinese outpost does in fact exist, thanks to Shah’s groundwork reporting. The question now is what would interest China in Tajikistan?

It’s not so much Tajikistan that interests China, but rather the its neighbor, Afghanistan. The area of Tajikistan where the outpost is located borders the Wakhan Corridor. This panhandle valley in Afghanistan has served as a trade route for millennia, connecting China with the Middle East. On the Chinese end, the Wakhjir Pass provides the only access between Afghanistan and the Xinjiang province. On the Western side, the Borghil Pass connects Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Through the Wakhan Corridor, China is able to build on an ancient trade and retrofit it for President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. This economic roadmap calls for strong regional cooperation with open trade routes. Partnerships between Asian and Middle Eastern governments are easier to form than it is to ensure security of the trade routes. As the U.S. continues to downscale its operations in Afghanistan, a power vacuum is left. Already some terrorist activity has spilled over into China’s eastern border. By establishing a military base near the Wakhan Corridor and Afghanistan, the Chinese have introduced a new military presence to the region. So the mission seems to be two-fold: securing trade lines and defending its border.

Recent peace talks between the Taliban and the Trump administration have proved fruitful and with peace possibly on the horizon, China is eager to grab a piece of the pie. Afghanistan has an abundance of minerals and is strategically-located, making it a suitable BRI partner. The political instability prevented that thus far, however. Now, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has announced that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would create a “contact group” to help with the peace talks.

Undoubtedly China’s sudden interest in the region is self-interested and mainly designed to became the global dominant force over both the U.S. and Russia. This can have ramifications for both the Middle East and for U.S. – China relations. The next time the U.S. decides to invade the region, it will have to consider how such an action will impact its economic ties with Asia. Once it has built up the region, China will not be too keen to welcome the U.S. back.

There’s also the question of Russia allowing China to take up residence in a former Soviet state. Tajikistan used to be part of Uzbekistan. After a 2017 meeting with Russian researchers, China’s Development Research Center seemed to have determined the appropriate limits and appears to be sticking to that unwritten guidance. With both governments denying the existence of Chinese soldiers in the area, the asian giant seems to be treading cautiously. China’s methods are predominantly economics-oriented, after all.

China’s future in the region, and in Afghanistan in particular, hinges on peace talks with the Taliban. Should they be successful, there’s little doubt development money will pour through the Wakhan Corridor and possibly transform the region. That leaves only the matter of whether or not the people will be willing to accept China’s help. The region is overwhelming Islamic; even Tajikistan is over 96 per cent Muslim. This runs counter to the official, anti-religious policies of the Communist Party of China.

The government has recently faced criticism of its treatment of Uighur Muslims. Nearly 1 million are detained in what the government calls “vocational training schools.” Reports from within paint a different picture: poor living conditions, forced communist indoctrination, and physical and psychological abuse.

For a nation so set against religion and especially Islam, the region will pose a unique challenge of how China will handle the religious autonomy of its host states. With governments selling themselves to China for even basic services such as water and energy, it is reasonable to question what will happen once China decides to assert political control, which at the end of the day, is Beijing’s ultimate motive.

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